Gerd Grupe holds a PhD in comparative musicology from the Free University Berlin where he also attained the Habilitation. Since 2002 he is professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Music and Performing Arts Graz/Austria (KUG). He has taught ethnomusicology at the universities of Berlin (Free University), Hildesheim, Frankfurt am Main, Bayreuth, the Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, and the Donau-Universität Krems. Among his publications are monographs on kumina songs from Jamaica (1990) and mbira (lamellophone) music from Zimbabwe (2004). He is editor of the book series Graz Studies in Ethnomusicology and co-editor of the peer-reviewed open access e-journal Translingual Discourse in Ethnomusicology. His research interests include musics from sub-Saharan Africa, Central Javanese gamelan music, and intercultural issues. Currently he is also Vice-Rector for Research at KUG.
Monographs 1990. Kumina-Gesänge: Studien zur traditionellen afrojamaikanischen Musik. Hamburg: Wagner. 2004. Die Kunst des Mbira-Spiels (The Art of Mbira Playing). Harmonische Struktur und Patternbildung in der Lamellophonmusik der Shona in Zimbabwe. Tutzing: Schneider.
How I became an ethnomusicologist and why I find it fascinating
The musics of the world and the people who make them constitute a virtually inexhaustible source for exciting research. They also provide an opportunity to reconsider one’s own concepts about music and get to learn new ones.
Toward the end of the 1970s when looking for a study program connected to music I found out that comparative musicology was offered at the Free University Berlin as an independent program separate from the general musicology program. Thus one could focus on this field right from the beginning of one’s studies which was not possible at that time anywhere else in the German-speaking area. Another feature of the curricula at that time was the obligation to choose at least one further field of study as a minor. Thus one had a second field not only as a fallback but also as additional expertise to draw on in one’s major. In my case this has been American studies with a focus on Caribbean and Creole studies which resulted in choosing kumina ancestor cult music from Jamaica as the topic of my dissertation. Before I conducted my first independent field studies there in the 1980s, I got a first impression of ethnomusicological work during an excursion to South India. In Madras (now Chennai) we had the chance to collaborate with a drummer from the South Indian classical tradition of so-called Carnatic music. We could try our hands at clapping tala to the intricate rhythms of his mrdangam playing. These experiences left a lasting impression on me resulting in my decision to attempt pursuing a professional “career” as an ethnomusicologist if at all possible.
Right from the beginning my own research project in Jamaica demonstrated what to reckon with in any such study. After successfully obtaining a project grant it soon turned out that in spite of careful preparations the original plan would not work and that the research questions would have to be modified. As in South India working directly with musicians has been my main concern. The object of study being an ancestor cult not only musical but also ritual practices as well as the belief system needed to be taken into account, too. Kumina developed among Blacks from the Congo who had come to Jamaica in the 19th century. Already during my first stay in Jamaica in became clear that in order to be able to analyze the lyrics at least basic knowledge of the relevant African language would be indispensable, since it plays an important role in the song texts and the secret language of kumina practitioners. Thus I ended up taking classes on Bantu languages with an Africanist in order to be able to competently discuss my questions with experts on Congo languages. This exemplifies the typical need for ethnomusicologists to incorporate neighboring disciplines and to familiarize oneself with their theories and terminologies to such an extent that communicating with experts from those fields becomes feasible.
After successfully defending my thesis and receiving the doctoral degree I was invited to work as postdoc at the Free University Berlin for five years. This enabled me to not only gain teaching experience but also to pursue a new research project resulting in my “second book” or Habilitationsschrift. Since our discipline is rather small there are only few open positions on the one hand but also fewer competitors on the other. Therefore, an academic “career” is not unthinkable if one aims for the highest possible qualification, which in the German-speaking countries still is the Habilitation. My new study dealt with music that seemed to have been exhaustively investigated in a standard monograph already, namely Paul Berliner’s famous The Soul of Mbira. Getting in touch with a mbira lamellophone player from Zimbabwe who taught me mbira playing and Shona language it soon became evident that examining mbira performance practice again more carefully might lead to further insights. Both while preparing for the field trip and in Zimbabwe when collaborating with local musicians employing the research method of learning to perform has proven to be very efficient. As a mbira student I could learn and document numerous pieces and versions and came across aspects of the performance practice that so far had not been adequately dealt with in previous studies.
A new chapter was opened so to speak in 2002 when I started working at KUG. Ever since Mantle Hood started this during the 1960s at UCLA using gamelan instruments as a means to offer students a hands-on experience of other musical concepts, sounds, tunings, performance practices and so on has become standard practice especially at Anglo-American universities. Contrary to a typical musicology department of a university in the German-speaking countries, acquiring a complete gamelan set and offering performance classes presented no problem at our university of arts. Thus, since 2004 KUG owns a complete Central Javanese gamelan set which has been in regular use since then for both teaching and research. In the context of various research projects the instruments served as reference for the computer-based modeling of Javanese music. These studies involved the collaboration of several renowned musicians from Surakarta (Java).
In my teaching I aim at going beyond my immediate areas of research in order to include at least selected examples of various musics of the world and I always make a point of discussing ethnomusicological theories and methods. The main goal of these endeavors is to convey to students the fascinating nature of the musics of the world.